Lord Ashcroft: My survey of Scottish voters. The SNP maintains its lead for the Holyrood elections. But there are clouds on its horizon.

28 Apr

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Events that change the world sometimes have little apparent effect on politics. At first glance, this is the case with the Covid pandemic and the scene in Scotland.

The independence debate continues to sit on a knife-edge. In my 2,000-sample survey, the 51-49 margin for staying in the UK amounts to a statistical dead heat. To the frustration of many voters on all sides who would rather talk about something else, the question still dominates the agenda: nearly as many people say they will use their votes next week to prevent a new referendum as to try and secure one.

Not only does the SNP maintain its clear lead in the Holyrood elections, but its support is more intense: those naming the nationalists as their most likely choice put their chances of actually turning out to vote for them higher than those of other parties’ potential backers.

Nicola Sturgeon herself is more dominant than ever. As her newly-appointed rivals (and the perennial Willie Rennie) struggle to make an impression, the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic has enhanced her standing even among her critics. Many praise the clarity of her daily briefings and draw a contrast with Boris Johnson (whom many Scots cannot quite believe has become Prime Minister), even if the more cynical praise “her commitment to being on TV every day,” as one focus group participant archly put it.

Her occasional digs at London’s approach have found a ready audience, and if she happens to be able to lift restrictions early in the run-up to an election, well, that’s politics, isn’t it? In our ever-revealing question on what animal each leader would be, the canny Sturgeon emerges as a fox, panther or lion. Alex Salmond, her supposed nemesis, is a warthog, toad, snake or wild boar; Johnson is a panda, sloth, orangutan or pigeon (“a lot of folk don’t like them but that doesn’t stop there being pigeons everywhere”). Keir Starmer is sleepy Bagpuss, or “a rabbit caught in the headlights”.

But the research reveals some other straws in the wind. While not necessarily ready to say they have yet changed their minds, we found some former Yes voters more nervous about independence. Though they think Sturgeon has outperformed the Prime Minister, they know that vaccine procurement was a UK effort, and doubt whether an independent Scotland could have sustained its own furlough scheme on anything like the scale seen over the past year. With oil revenues now offering a less reliable foundation for the Scottish economy, the thought grows that Edinburgh might become not just the architectural but the fiscal Athens of the North.

For many, Brexit is a powerful justification for a new independence referendum. But this, too, works both ways. Belief that the effects of Brexit have yet to play out adds to qualms about Scotland’s economic prospects, especially when combined with uncertainty about the post-Covid recovery. Those who would like an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU are far from certain that this could easily happen; they are unlikely to have their doubts assuaged before any new vote.

Northern Ireland’s experience leads to questions about the post-independence border between Scotland and England. And those who despaired at four years of Brexit negotiations will need to be convinced that Westminster will prove a more magnanimous negotiating partner than Brussels – a reversal of the nationalists’ standard demonology. Meanwhile, with questions like Scotland’s future currency unanswered, some who still favour independence at heart feel it would be more of a leap of faith now than in 2014.

Most feel Salmond’s motives for launching Alba have more to do with ego than independence. But the SNP has lost some of its lustre. Many question its record on health, education and poverty, and bungled schemes like Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Some openly say the SNP is the means to an end, believing the party to achieve Scottish independence may not be the right one to run an independent Scotland.

Many are nervous about the prospect of a new referendum without authorisation from London, and cite the example of Catalonia. But pro-independence voters take promises of further devolution with a large pinch of salt, and the current settlement seems to promise continued Tory rule from Westminster for much of the foreseeable future. There is a feeling that Scottish politics cannot move on until the question is settled. If it is in Sturgeon’s favour, she seems more likely to dislodge Downing Street’s current occupant than the official opposition.

Full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Henry Hill: Lewis to fly the Union Flag from Stormont House all year round

22 Apr

When the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport issued an edict last month that the Union Flag should henceforth fly from Government buildings all year round – as opposed to roughly a score of ‘designated days’ – there was a problem: the move apparently excluded Northern Ireland.

The official release included a note to editors, picked up by the press, to the effect that “there is specific legislation setting out the arrangements for the flying of flags from government buildings” in the Province. This was taken by some papers, such as the Guardian, to mean that “the new regulations will not apply to Northern Ireland”.

Critics were swift to point out that once again, the Prime Minister’s efforts seemed only to have confirmed Ulster’s semi-detached status.

This obviously wasn’t good enough. As I noted in this column a couple of weeks ago, and for the Belfast News Letter, such policies would only help to undermine unionist and loyalist support for the Belfast Agreement, especially when delivered on top of the ongoing problems caused by the Protocol. As I put it for the paper:

“Coming hot on the heels of the collapse of the Downing Street ‘Union Unit’, it highlights how difficult it will be to drive forward a strongly pro-Union policy agenda against the entrenched attitudes of Whitehall mandarins. Excluding Ulster once again from a visible expression of its British status smacks strongly of the Northern Irish Office and its institutional culture of exaggerated neutrality.”

Fortunately, for once it seems my pessimism was misplaced. Sources in the Northern Ireland Office report that, having reviewed the legalities, Brandon Lewis has ordered that Stormont House, the Department’s headquarters in the Province, will fly the national flag all year round, bringing it into line with the DCMS guidance. The Secretary of State apparently takes the view that, as a UK-wide institution, UK Government buildings in Ulster should not be treated differently to those in other parts of the country.

This will doubtless set spluttering those commentators who view anything that irritates nationalists as a violation of the ‘spirit’ of the Belfast Agreement. But it is an important, if small, step towards demonstrating that the Government is taking its commitment to Northern Ireland, and its place in the United Kingdom, seriously. Lewis should follow it up by teaming up with the law officers to develop a long-overdue understanding of what the UK’s obligations under the Agreement actually are – rather than getting sold on fictitious obligations by Dublin, as Theresa May was.

Scottish Tories double down on SNP rhetoric… as Nationalists back off referendum

Last week, I wrote about how the Scottish Conservatives have angered their Westminster colleagues by putting the Nationalists’ central election message – that an SNP majority means another independence referendum – at the heart of their own campaign.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Douglas Ross confirmed this week that the Prime Minister will not be heading north of the border to campaign before election day.

But the dissent is not confined to London. Over the past week Scottish figures have also got in touch to vent their frustration at a strategy seen as putting the scramble for second place ahead of the best interests of the country. Worse, if you genuinely believe that Boris Johnson can and will refuse a referendum – and you should – then its actually misleading the electorate.

And it continues to undermine efforts to scrutinise the SNP’s woeful record in government, with the Daily Record pointing out that the Tories’ own manifesto mentions independence more times than the NHS.

Most bizarrely of all, they are persisting with this even whilst the Nationalists themselves start backing away from a referendum. They have opted not to refer to it on their ballot paper description, and Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that the pandemic might need to push any poll back to 2024 – a move which leaves her vulnerable to Alex Salmond and his Alba Party, who have been quick to seize the opportunity.

(This might have something to do with the fact that it turns out that several major polls for the Scotsman newspaper failed to properly weight for likelihood to vote and thus overstated support for both the SNP and independence, as the Spectator’s Mr Steerpike sets reveals.)

The oddest part is that wouldn’t even be difficult to fix the messaging. Just replace ‘only’ with ‘best’ in the tweet below and it not only retains its crystal clarity, but it becomes true, allowing the Scottish Conservatives to mobilise their voters without undermining the Prime Minister’s prerogative to maintain the UK.

Henry Hill: Anger at Westminster as Scottish Tories put SNP’s referendum pledge at the heart of their campaign

15 Apr

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece explaining why Conservative voters in Scotland should resist the siren call of George Galloway and his ‘All for Unity’ party (A4U), who are urging unionist voters to abandon the main parties on the regional list vote in next month’s Holyrood elections.

The backlash from A4U’s most committed online partisans has been spectacular. Critical journalists are now ‘sophists’ and ‘poison-pen men’, agents of the major parties using ‘the blackest of tactics’ to try desperately to head off this threat to their paymasters.

Nonsense, of course, but it true we would seem to have earned our thirty pieces of silver: the most recent poll found A4U’s support has halved over the last two weeks, and it looks increasingly unlikely to return any MSPs at all. This will doubtless only make its Twitter warriors even more vicious: just yesterday, their constitution spokesman threatened to change the party’s tactical vote recommendation based on whichever candidate was nicest about A4U, rather than best-placed to beat the SNP.

However there is one downside of Galloway’s campaign which I didn’t account for in my piece: that it increases the temptation for the Scottish Conservatives to indulge their worst instincts and run a core-vote campaign that puts the party’s immediate electoral needs over the best interests of the UK. And lo, so they have.

The problem here is that whilst they bitterly disagree over the substance of the issue, both the Tories and the Nationalists benefit electorally when the constitution is the issue at the centre of the debate. The former in particular benefited hugely in 2016 by corralling a broad range of pro-UK voters behind them as the party best-placed to take the fight to the SNP.

Which is probably why the Nationalists’ central election message – that a vote for them is a vote for the Scottish Government to hold another independence referendum – is all over Conservative election messaging. Even though it directly contradicts Conservative policy, which is that the Prime Minister has quite rightly ruled out granting another plebiscite.

Ian Smart, a Labour blogger, has set out why the Tories’ current strategy is so counter-productive. But I know that his frustrations are shared by senior Conservatives at Westminster. Not only does focusing on independence make it harder to scrutinise the Nationalists on their abominable record in government, but it also complicates Boris Johnson’s job when it comes to holding the line after May. How much harder will it be to argue that these elections are not about independence if the Scottish Tories have spent the whole campaign insisting that they are all about independence?

When I first complained about this on Twitter, they got in touch to provide a clarificatory quote:

“The SNP have made it abundantly clear that they will hold another divisive independence referendum, even a wildcat referendum, regardless of what the UK Government says. Our position remains the exact same – that the last thing Scotland needs is another independence referendum and we will be doing everything we can to stop an SNP majority, stop them holding that illegal and divisive referendum, and get all of the focus back on rebuilding Scotland and supporting Scotland’s recovery.”

But none of this nuance is on their literature. It would be a matter of a couple of words to say that the SNP were threatening a ‘wildcat referendum’, or something else to make it clear that we’re talking about potentially unlawful strategies of the sort Alex Salmond and Alba are so keen on.

One of the big problems with devolution has always been the way it aligns the short-term political interests of devolved politicians against the long-term best interests of the United Kingdom. We can only hope that the Prime Minister ignores those clueless ministers sounding off in the Sunday papers about granting a referendum in the middle of the pandemic and refreshes himself on the strong case for a moratorium on Scottish independence.

Scottish Conservative supporters should not vote for ‘All for Unity’

5 Apr

When Alex Salmond launched his Alba Party, his message to Nationalist voters was simple: if everyone who casts their ballot for the SNP in the constituencies throws their vote behind another separatist party in the regional lists, they can game the system and create a ‘supermajority’ for independence in the Scottish Parliament.

He’s not the first to have this idea. Alba immediately annexed another outfit called Action for Independence which was set up with the same intention. Apparently Labour occasionally mulled standing the Co-operative Party in the lists during the era of their hegemony. It’s a poor electoral system that allows such a thing.

Now there are plenty of reasons for nationalists to be wary of this plan. The demands of a ‘supermajority’ yielded by actively disenfranchising unionist voters won’t carry any moral force with the Government, and may even provide cover for Westminster imposing a supermajority requirement on a future independence vote. It could also prevent the SNP winning an overall majority in their own right, which would also undermine Nicola Sturgeon in any face-off with Boris Johnson.

But the basic mathematics of Alba’s proposition is basically correct. The SNP are so dominant in the first-past-the-post constituencies that, outwith the Borders, their list vote is punitively inefficient.

This is not true for the pro-Union parties. Which is why George Galloway’s plan for the Alliance for Unity – known for electoral purposes as ‘All for Unity’ – to serve as an anti-separatist (Jamie Blackett, who made their case on this site, says they are ‘not unionists’) version of Alba makes no sense. Let’s look at why.

‘Unionist unity’ hurts the Union

A4U’s proposal was that the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats should put aside their differences and strike a grand bargain to divvy up the constituency seats between them. Then, in order to maximise the efficiency of the pro-UK vote in the lists, they all stand aside for the proportional ballot in favour of A4U.

Let’s start with the most basic problem: there is scant evidence that this would work even if it were possible. Time and again, from the 2019 general election to many council by-elections, voters for the main parties have proved deeply resistant to that sort of tactical voting. The Tories in particular struggle to win transfers in the multi-round system used for local government in Scotland. Labour shedding voters to the SNP cost the Conservatives seats at the general election.

Thus crude calculations about what seats could be won if only there was a pro-Union pact, based on just adding up the combined main-party vote in a given seat, are nonsense. The total pro-UK electorate is in no way a fungible ‘unionist vote’, and it is maximised by offering voters – including those for whom the constitution is not top priority – a variety of options.

By contrast, any united option would presumably disagree on economic and social issues and thus be stuck focusing on the constitution, the one issue it is least likely to win over voters from the SNP on, and steer unionism into the cul-de-sac it’s trapped itself in in Northern Ireland. It remains as bad an idea now as it ever was.

‘Unionist unity’ is undeliverable

But even if this weren’t the case, the proposal is obviously a non-starter. The difficulty the Liberal and Social Democratic parties had divvying up seats in the 1980s would be nothing compared to the acrimonious circus that three-way negotiations over the constituencies would be. At the very least, any chance of appearing less divided and more focused on the real issues than the separatist side would be squandered.

Nor was it ever realistic to expect that the main parties would cede to A4U the lists, where they win nearly all their seats. Even had any of their leaders been addled enough to consider it, they would not have survived signing up to a plan whose most likely outcome was simply the mass replacement of their MSPs with A4U ones. Put bluntly, such proposals were very obviously in A4U’s interests but nobody else’s.

How A4U will hurt the unionist cause

Any concern that the above interpretation might be overly cynical should be dispelled by party’s conduct. Had the plan been advanced in good faith, one might have expected Galloway, Blackett et al to reconsider once the necessary conditions for its success were not achieved.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead A4U is still planning to fight the lists. As James Kanagasooriam has pointed out, they are currently polling just below the threshold at which minor parties start to pick up seats, meaning they’re just going to make it harder to elect pro-Union MSPs and shorten the odds for Alba and the (also separatist) Greens. If they do pick up seats, it will almost certainly just be at the expense of an MSP from a unionist party, rather than a separatist. As Scotland in Union puts it:

“Modelling of the Scottish electoral system suggests that if the share of pro-UK voters supporting minor parties instead of the established parties doubles, the SNP could hang on to a majority of MSPs with as little as 34% of list votes, three full percentage points lower than if all pro-UK voters voted for one of the big three.”

As the force of this reasoning becomes harder and harder to escape, those who have committed themselves to A4U have started to abandon the pretensions of a tactical masterplan. Instead, it’s now all about ousting unionism’s tired has-beens in favour of fresh blood, which Galloway can lead to ‘really take the fight to the SNP’, whatever that means.

In reality, they will have no obvious way to land more blows on a disciplined separatist majority in Holyrood than the traditional parties. Nor will it obviously benefit the pro-UK cause to have as divisive a figure as Galloway become the public face of opposition to the SNP, no matter how high his standing amongst the unionist hard core.

What to do

After decades in retreat, it is understandable that unionist voters are frustrated and looking for options. Nor is the rise of challengers always a bad thing – the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, for example, offers a coherent and under-represented position to the electorate, expands the unionist coalition somewhat, and has already sparked a necessary and overdue realignment on the part of the Welsh Conservatives.

All for Unity are not cast in this mould. Individual good ideas such as a Clarity Act do not justify their existence (and that would in any case be the business of Westminster). Their deliberate construction as a broad-church ‘alliance’ probably prohibits them from doing anything too distinctive, apart from hawking the easy-mode nationalist ‘unionism’ of cutting off awkward connections to national politics. All they seem set to do is get committed unionist voters to cast their ballots in a deeply inefficient way.

They aren’t the only party compromising the cause’s best interests to scare up the vote – some Scottish Tories are doing the same by legitimising the idea that a victory for Sturgeon next month means another referendum, undermining the Prime Minister’s right of refusal. But they have much longer odds of making a constructive contribution. As in almost nil.

So for any Tory voters reading this and wondering how to cast their vote, it’s simple. If you’re minded to vote tactically, head over to Scotland in Union’s calculator, put in your postcode, and back the strongest pro-Union candidate in your constituency. If not, and always in the lists, vote Conservative and Unionist.

Henry Hill: Is the Alba Party the separatist movement’s answer to Leave.EU?

1 Apr

Salmond rallies the discontented to Alba

It’s an unhappy feature of the electoral system used for the Scottish Parliament that it seems to be fiendishly complex to work out exactly what impact Alex Salmond’s new party is going to have in the upcoming elections, or on the longer-term future of the SNP.

There are several ways in which it could hurt the pro-UK cause. First, if Salmond can attract enough SNP voters on the lists it could game the system (as it openly states it aims to do) and deliver a separatist ‘supermajority’. Second, it could play the same role vis-a-vis the Nationalists as Leave.EU did for Vote Leave, providing a home for pro-independence voters turned off by Nicola Sturgeon’s emphasis on rejoining the EU and other ‘woke’ issues such as transgender rights.

On the other hand, it could make life tricky for the First Minister in the short term. Moderate success could see it deprive the SNP of an overall majority, undermining the moral force of their demands for a referendum and forcing Sturgeon to cooperate with another party to govern. Tellingly, despite all the scorn she has heaped on her predecessor, she has not yet ruled out working with Alba.

Salmond will also put a spotlight on an issue Sturgeon would much rather stay un-examined: what she will do if, or when, Boris Johnson refuses to grant her the Section 30 order for a referendum.

For years, the First Minister has strung her grassroots along with the promise that the next campaign is just around the corner. Her actual strategy is probably to play for time once again by taking the Government to court – after all, in the aftermath of Miller II who is to say that the Supreme Court won’t invent a new right for the Scottish Parliament?

Salmond, on the other hand, is talking about ‘immediate negotiations’ with London and saying that a referendum is not the only pathway to independence. Not only does such talk risk spooking moderate voters, but it also sucks Sturgeon into a debate on the mechanics of independence and leaves more space for the other parties, especially the new Labour leader Anas Sarwar, to focus on public services.

Coveney complains that he’s become a ‘bogey man’

The scramble to save the Northern Ireland Protocol is on. Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, now claims that although he has become a ‘Brexit bogeyman’ to unionists, he has in fact been squaring off against Brussels just as much as London.

Unionists in Northern Ireland, who are currently mounting a legal challenge to the Protocol, are unlikely to be sold on this version of events. To them, Coveney is the the outrider for the much more maximalist approach to Dublin’s demands on the border question that Leo Varadkar adopted when he succeeded Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

But it does suggest that the coalition that stitched up the Protocol – in Ireland, at least – that it cannot endure if it continues to alienate pretty much the entire unionist community of Ulster. This follows along with other development which would reduce the need for unionist cooperation in governing the Province, such as the Alliance Party’s newfound enthusiasm for the idea of voluntary coalition since the Unionist parties lost their overall majority at Stormont.

We previously reported that the appointment of Lord Frost signalled that the Government was determined to deliver meaningful change to the Protocol, and maybe he will find an improbable ally in Coveney. But it will be interesting to see if the EU is willing to show ‘solidarity with Ireland’ when that involves being flexible with their rules, rather than as inflexible as possible.

Abolish secure a spot in the Welsh leaders’ debate

If recent polling is to be believed, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party are on track to enter the Senedd for the first time in May. Their campaign has now received a further fillip when the BBC decided to include them in the official leaders debates.

The case for excluding them whilst including the Liberal Democrats was always extremely thin. Following defections, Abolish currently have more MSs than the Lib Dems and look almost certain to be the larger party in the next senedd, as the latter might actually be wiped out altogether.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the party can make the most of this spotlight. Their leader, Richard Suchorzewski, is not a sitting MS and the pressure is on to reform well. But if the party can establish itself, it may be able to assist its nascent sister party in Scotland, which is likewise contesting the Holyrood elections for the first time.